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How To Learn Sign Language

The International Phonetic Alphabet


So let’s talk about sounds. At first, you
might think that writing down all the sounds you hear the way that you hear them should
be pretty straightforward. But if you’re listening to me now, you’ve probably struggled with
enough crazy English spelling to know that’s not true. So is there a way to accurately
transcribe any word from any language anywhere ever? There sure is. I’m Moti Lieberman,
and this is The Ling Space. Let’s just face it: English spelling is
nuts. The same letters can represent all kinds of different sounds: so, ‘c’ can be [s] like
“Cecil” or [k] like Carlos, ‘g’ can sound like [g] in “dog’ or [dʒ] in “angel”,
and don’t even get me started about ‘ough’ – [ow], [u],[ʌf], [ɔ], [aw]. As if that
wasn’t enough, the same sound can be represented by a bunch of different spellings: so, the
[k] sound can be written like “key”, “ache”, “call”, “luck”, or even
“box”. We also have silent letters, like the p in “pneumonia”, and sounds that
we pronounce but can’t be bothered to write, like the [j] in “cute”. So English is
a total failure for transparency – you can’t look at something and know for sure how you
should say it. But it gets even worse when we try to represent
non-English sounds with English spelling. We’ve tried lots of systems over the years,
but you always end up with this inexact science. “dayjah voo” doesn’t actually sound
that much like “déjà vu”. Or look at Pinyin, the system of transcribing Mandarin
into English. If you look at “cuiruo,” it probably won’t make you think you should say
脆弱. There may be rules, but it’s not transparent exactly what they are from looking
at it, and even if you know them, you don’t really get exactly what it should sound like. And this is true for pretty much every writing
system in the world. Even languages with tons of sounds will still have some sounds that
they just won’t use, like the [y] that’s tricky in French. And it goes
both ways, too: Saying “furusato”, the Japanese word for hometown, doesn’t really
capture the sounds that you hear in 故郷 (ふるさと), And on the other hand マフラー does not really get at “muffler”. So what do we do? Accurately transcribing
the sounds of language is really important to linguists! It allows us to puzzle out phonemes
and allophones, or map out different dialects, or capture the tantalizing glimpses of a rare
or dying language. We need a way to make sure that everyone looking at the same alphabet knows
exactly what those letters represent. That’s the only way we can really talk about what language sounds
like. And luckily, we’re not doomed to use approximations forever, when we’re trying to capture
all the sounds in all the languages. There’s a writing system that aims to do just that. It’s called the International Phonetic Alphabet, or IPA. It was first proposed in the
late 19th century by the International Phonetic Association, and it’s been revised a bunch
of times since then, as we discover new sounds in the world’s languages. And we’ve needed those revisions – there
were whole classes of sounds that weren’t on the chart at first because phoneticians
weren’t really that concerned with capturing sounds outside European languages.
So, just take a look at click sounds, like [!] or [ǀ]. The early IPA didn’t have room on the chart for sounds that weren’t made with air flowing out from the lungs up through the
vocal tract. But we need those! We have to have them to describe a number of different languages
from southern Africa, like Zulu or Xhosa. But they didn’t make it onto the chart for
the first 45 years that it existed. By now, though, we’re pretty solid: the last change was
in 2005, and it only added one sound. So what’s the IPA made of? Well, it basically
comes in two parts: a vowel chart, and a consonant chart. Together they make up the roster of
possible language sounds that humans can make with their vocal tracts. A lot of the symbols in the IPA should look
pretty familiar to English speakers. So, [t] is written as ‘t’, [o] as ‘o’,
etc. But the most important thing to remember about the IPA is that you get one symbol
per sound. So you always know what sound you’re going to get for any given letter. Since the
goal is transparency, and since English spelling is so confusing, the similarities stop pretty
quickly. So for example, the sound ‘sh’ as in “shadow”
is written in English with an s-h, but in the IPA with an [ʃ]. You also get [ð] for the
‘th’ in “them”, and [ŋ] for the ng sound at the end of “tongue”. And sometimes,
letters from English are associated with different sounds in the IPA, like using “j” for
[j] or “y” for that pesky French “u”. This means the problems we saw earlier
with dealing with different languages just disappear. We can transcribe English “deja vu” as
this and French “déjà vu” as that and bam! Now we can tell them apart and reproduce
them more accurately, and do all kinds of cool linguistic science to them. And because
it’s international, linguists from anywhere in the world should be able to
share their data with people from anywhere else, no matter what their writing system is. All they have to do is learn the IPA. So, great, with matchups between one sound
and one symbol, you can express a whole lot about human language. But what if you want
to put more information in there? What if it’s important to you to make sure you accurately
include all the allophones and variation in what you hear? After all, just knowing what those basic sounds are can be useful for some analysis, but maybe you don’t know what all those
phonemes are yet. Or maybe you want to describe different dialects of the same language. Sometimes,
you really need that extra detail. So, we can use the IPA to do more or less
specific transcription. Let’s run this through with an example, say, a name like “Tamika.”
Now, there are many different things that make up a word like “Tamika”. But
to start off with, maybe all you want are those basic sounds, the phonemes.
And, you need to add stress, too, which is the emphasized syllable. So, just the
phonemes plus stress make up what we call “broad transcription”. Oh, and by the
way, that flipped e is called a schwa,and it’s the secret key to English pronunciation.
It’s just this little sound that turns up almost everywhere when we have a vowel that doesn’t have emphasis on it. But maybe if you were listening closely, you
heard that puff of air that came with the first sound in Tamika. And, maybe you want to include that. Maybe you also noticed that the first schwa is more nasal than the other
one, and you want to mark that down too. If you include all the bits about pronunciation
that are predictable based on what’s going on elsewhere in the word – so, the allophones – you end up with something known as “narrow transcription”. Narrow transcription is crammed full of information,
which is great, but you probably don’t want to work with it all the time, especially when
that extra information isn’t relevant, because it can get pretty bulky. But beyond how awesome the IPA is for transcription,
even the consonant and vowel charts themselves are great. The way they’re put together
actually gives you information about the sounds in them, too. They’re kind of like the Periodic
Table of the Elements that way! So if you look at the consonant chart, the
rows are different ways humans can push air through their vocal tract to make sounds,
from more closed to more free air flow. And the columns are the different places in the
mouth that you can make those sounds – so, lips, like p and b, teeth like th, the soft palate
of your mouth like k, and so on. We’ll come back to the different categories
of speech sounds in a later episode, but for now, just looking at the chart makes it clear
how much we divide up the space inside our mouths – how just a little difference can make a big meaning change, in some language somewhere. And if you thought the consonant chart was
cool, the vowel chart is even cooler.This weird trapezoid is a rectangular oddity for
a reason: it represents the inside of your mouth, and all the different ways you can
make vowels. So an [i] has your tongue high up, near the front of your mouth, while an
[ɑ] has it lower down and towards the back. It’s amazing! Just looking at the chart
tells you where you should be pronouncing the sound, even if it isn’t always as easy
to make it as it looks. Learning to spot and pronounce all the different speech
sounds of the world might seem like a daunting task, but if you work it out then you can
hear anything anywhere. And that’s a reward worthy of the challenge. So we’ve reached the end of the Ling Space
for this week. If you were transcribing my speech sounds correctly, you learned that
the IPA was invented to capture all the variation in all the languages in all the world; that
you can transcribe broadly, with just phonemes, or narrowly, with all of the allophones; and
that the consonant and vowel charts strive to actually depict what is going on in your
face when you’re making the different sounds of your language. The Ling Space is produced by me, Moti Lieberman. It’s directed by Adèle-Élise Prévost, and it’s written by both of us. Our production assistant is Georges
Coulombe, our music and sound design is by Shane Turner, and our graphics team is atelierMUSE.
We’re down in the comments below, or you can bring the discussion back over to our website,
where we have some extra material on this topic. Check us out on Tumblr, Twitter, and
Facebook, and if you want to keep expanding your own personal Ling Space, please subscribe.
And we’ll see you next Wednesday. Hasta luego!

73 Replies to “The International Phonetic Alphabet”

  • The discovery of the schwa in phonology was the magical moment English pronunciation started making a tiny bit of sense to me. I know plenty of my fellow students disagreed but I could have use phonology in my foreign language learning way earlier in my education. (Nice t-shirt 🙂 )

  • @piouppioup Thanks for the comment! Glad you like the t-shirt. ^_^

    I really agree about teaching phonology in foreign language education. For example, the amount of time I spent getting the [ɸ] right for Japanese was pretty astonishing, but it's because I was told "it's sort of like an 'f', but not quite, and it sounds like this." So all I could do was just practice it over and over until I worked out how to do it. If someone told me it was a voiceless bilabial fricative, it'd've been so much easier to get! We shouldn't worry about a few extra symbols, like [ə], if it really makes the points clearer for the learner.

  • Thanks for making this video! I've started studying phonetics & linguistics a year ago and transcription classes where we would practice the periodic table of speech sounds were always my favorite! I wish your great video would have been on youtube back then already because I'm sure it helps understand everything better (at least for foreign student. Somehow I find english definitions much easier than complicated german ones!)

  • The international phonetic alphabet does seem really quite useful. How challenging is it for an adult to learn all the components of it? The ways the sounds are logically arranged seems like it would be helpful, but you've already discussed in the past how recognizing sounds is more easily done when young.

  • This is too technical. Is this necessary for fluent English speakers like myself, or for anyone of that matter?

  • Sir, this is the best video on youtube about phonetics that covers all the important or whole concept of it. thanks alot for this wonderful lesson.

  • Night Vale shirt! Linguistics is highly applicable to WTNV. Oh and now you're talking about Carlos, Cecil, dogs and Angels…. this is a conspiracy

  • this is a rare (or unusual) modern channel teaching certain necessary topic yet not interested by the vast majority such as the international phonetic alphabet. I did not say it is not interesting it is just sad that it has less views. I think this deserve more. Thanks for the video keep up the good work man.

  • Loved your video. Can you point me in the direction of a reliable video that sounds out all the IPA symbols? I'd love to learn the symbols which aren't used in English.

  • +clara saffronI don't know why this isn't working at the moment to reply to you, but I'll put it here instead: Thanks for the kind words about the video! I don't know other videos that have all the sounds, but the UVic IPAlab has a chart where all the files are linked up to recordings of the different sounds that I found really helpful. You can find it here: http://web.uvic.ca/ling/resources/ipa/charts/IPAab/IPAlab.htm

  • I'm a graduate student in speech language pathology working on a language sample. Thanks for the excellent refresher on IPA. I will tell my friends and classmates about your channel!

  • Is the presenter a linguist?? Love the channel though it's great for all my languages I study at school (English, Irish, French and German). I'm hoping to learn this off by heart as it would cut out the middle man of translating all the foreign language sounds into English sound then back into French and then memorising it. Anyway the moral of the story learn the IPA.

  • very interesting, i never got any where with it, but for years now, ive been trying to create my own language, which is pretty much exactly the same as this… one letter, one sound, based on the human voice… its even based on your mouth position like the second chart….. the main differences being, i wanted more universal symbols to represent the positions, similar to how a power on/off symbol, and usb symbol, for their tasks, symbols not related to any language, but easily identifiable……. the other difference being the name, ive been calling it "Humanji"

  • Thank you very much for making this video! It was really interesting learning about phonetics, as always.

    I have a couple of questions I would like to ask.

    1. What is the difference between phonology and phonetics? I looked it up in a dictionary but did not quite get it. Can you please explain?

    2. Is there any language that only has either voiced or unvoiced consonants, i.e. lacks pairs like [b] and [p]? Is there any language that only has either rounded or unrounded vowels, i.e. only lacks pairs like [i] and [y]?

    3. From watching you here at the Ling Space and some other channels focused on linguistics, like xidnaf and Artifexian, I understand that a sound gets it’s own symbol in the IPA when some language in the world recognized it as a different phoneme compared to a similar sound, like [bIt] vs. [bi:t] in English. This gets really important in Slavic language like Russian, which have pairs of palatalised and non-palatalised consonants. There is a difference between [l] in угол [ˈuɡəl] ‘corner’ and the palatalised [lʲ] in in уголь [ˈuɡəlʲ] ‘coal’, and this is not the only example of such a clear minimal pair when it comes to palatalization. So, why aren't these recognized as completely different sounds and why doesn’t [lʲ] have it’s own symbols?

  • As an SLP, I use the IPA on a regular basis as part of assessing articulation impairments. GREAT VIDEO! : )

  • Something weird I realized today: If I'm not enunciating my words, I pronounce the prefix "inter-" as [ɪ̃˞]. For example, "internet" is pronounced [ˈɪ̃˞nɛʔ].

  • Thank you so much for this video! I'm cramming for my phonology final today and I just can't continue anymore. I'm just gonna watch all of your videos instead😁

  • Absolutely amazing tutorial on the basics of the international phonetic alphabet (for absolute beginners). If I ever need to refer anyone to a video regarding this short subject, this is the goto video. The other vids on yt are more 'sterile' than Moti. Thanks for the free lecture!

  • [ai] ❤ [fənɛɾiks] YES!
    You Have inspired me to go practice IPA by figuring out how to write "All hail the Glow Cloud!" in IPA. Thank you.

  • I've been yearning to learn the IPA as both a nerd and a singer. Do you recommend any resources to help memorise it? I haven't found any good ones yet.

    P.S. I love this series.

  • Sir, based solely on your t-shirts, your books, and the content of your videos, you are now my new best friend I've never met.

  • I’m a linguistics major, so this was a really interesting and informative video! I’ve gotta say all of the WTNV references made it for me, lol

  • How does the IPA deal with tones? In Mandarin at least, the tones vary dramatically even when they are all the same tone (the second tone in 公平 is a lot different from the second tone from 国家 for instance).

  • Ok, I have a question for you!! Moti, do you read what you are saying in your videos? If you don't, how do you know all this??? OMG, I totally admire your smartness!! Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us. Good day!!

  • I am very interested in linguistic studies.. but I don't know what I can do with it as a job in life. Can someone enlighten me on the uses it may provide?
    (subscribed btw, I love these kinds of videos)

  • Wow! I am in a linguistics class and struggling. Your videos are helpful. My next project is to try and understand what each phoneme "sounds" like. (you made it sound easy-oh this symbol sounds like this-not quite sure it will be easy.) I am going to look through your videos to see if you have an "ABC" for phoneme video. (if not-it might be a good addition for a new ESL teacher!)

  • I've been trying to learn IPA by examples from Danish (my native language), English and French … however the vowels are really confusing. IPA doesn't seem to be able to represent Danish vowels correctly without diacritics.
    Danish teachers have their own phonetic alphabet (called "Dania") which is way more intuitive wrt. the Danish language … but translating exactly between Dania and IPA requires strict IPA.

  • Hello I think you are my friend Isabel's long lost father. She has dark hair, wears glasses, and enjoys linguistics much like you do. She also has the last name Lieberman. Please mail a strand of your hair to 500 joseph c wilson blvd so we can conduct a DNA test.

  • Im actually having hardtime bout this topic. Thanks God finally found your vids 😉😙
    Ps: im preparing for my report next week on masters about this. Oh wish me luck 😊😉

  • shit I didn't notice the way anglophone say dejavu was so convoluted XD. (In my accent it's probably deʒavu)

  • Phones, they are called phones, allophones are phones that are recognised as the same phoneme, but the narrow transcription use phones.

  • Absolutely love these videos

    I'm strongly considering taking linguistics at some university in Québec (I'm from South Ontario) once I finish my last year of high school this year, and after watching a couple of your videos, I really feel like I would love it.

    I'm currently addicted to learning several foreign languages, and I feel as though it keeps getting easier. And after watching this video, I believe it helps even further

  • Very great video. I think the Phonetic Alphabet of African Languages captures all the sound in the IPA, plus it captures all the ton that makes tonal languages particular/special. Please have a look on this Playlist of Videos about the Phonetic Alphabet of African Languages. That may help you linguist to rethink the IPA. Thanks again for your video.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZG2Po93aFd0&list=PLrKMH6RJivhtnIk0gxI7jnkNr14B-IlGy

  • Sir, this video has covered everything pertaining to pronunciation. Please watch my video in YouTube channel " Englophobia " and check my English grammar and pronunciation.

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